Sermon: Receiving the Spirit, June 8, 2014

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                                   Pentecost Sunday

Scripture: Acts 2:1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Prayer

Perplexing, Pentecostal God, you infuse us with your Spirit, urging us to vision and dream. May the gift of your presence find voice in our lives, that our babbling may be transformed into discernment and the flickering of many tongues light an unquenchable fire of compassion and justice. Amen.

Our Experience

My roommate in seminary was a young woman named Georgia. Georgia was in her mid thirties working as an office manager when the call to ministry took her by surprise. When she got her first church she was fine with program planning, working with volunteers, even leading small groups, but preaching scared her to death. When I lived out in the Reseda she was serving a church out in the Antelope Valley so we would meet at various coffee shops out on the 14 freeway, have breakfast and then do exegetical studies of the scripture text together for her next sermon.

Now scarrier than familiarity with scripture for Georgia was the whole idea of getting up in front of a room full of people and saying something that was from God that could change lives.  Georgia, in spite of her seminary training, hadn’t planned on doing that, but as God would have it her call to this particular ministry included one sermon a month!  She would be so nervous the week before she could hardly function. She’d get up on Sunday and look out over the congregation. Everybody sitting in their section “like season ticket holders” she’d say. The adult ladies Sunday school class section, the rowdy teenagers section, the men who would rather be out playing golf section and the young parents with children section. Georgia thought of them as “the Crayola section,” because the kids spent the worship hour quietly drawing pictures and coloring in their children’s church bulletins at a small table in the back of the sanctuary. They would draw the soloist’s beehive hairdo (with bees), the dove on the banner hanging in the chancel, their take on the plants in the courtyard; whatever they saw they drew.
Georgia was so nervous about preaching that she resorted to prayer. Every day for 20 minutes she would do creative visualization prayer. She would picture herself preaching with Jesus standing next to her with his arm around her shoulder. Every single day! She told me one day, “Annie, it wasn’t a magic cure, but each time, preaching got a little more bearable and a little more bearable, degree by degree. Then one day it actually seemed kind of fun for a few seconds. I am making progress.”

One Pentecost Sunday I visited Georgia’s church and I was standing in the back of the sanctuary following worship waiting for Georgia when a young mom came up with her daughter, Ashley. I knew about Ashley because Georgia had told me that she was seven and she was painfully, painfully shy. Her mom said, “Pastor Georgia, Ashley has something to show you.” Georgia knelt down to be at eye level and Ashley held out her children’s bulletin. She said, softly, “Look at what I drew today. Here is you, Pastor Georgia. And guess who this is.” She held up another piece of paper smeared with bright blue finger paint with all kinds of squiggly lines in it.  Pastor Georgia looked at it and exclaimed as the best of us do that it was a beautiful blue picture!  Ashley put her hands on her hips, stamped her foot and said, “Pastor Georgia.  I finger painted the Holy Spirit for you!”  That was the day that Ashley came out of her shell and Georgia learned to trust her own ability to preach God’s word.

Our Experience Expanded

Today is Pentecost Sunday as I explained so eloquently in German during our time with children this morning. It is the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the flames of the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. As they received the Spirit they were able to speak in languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.

There’s a tendency in our culture to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if we look at the Pentecost story, we find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages.

The Pentecost story also reminds us that witnessing to Christ can involve being surprised. Actually, it is about being radically transformed like Ashley by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost also tells us that we cannot sit back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.

Our Traditions

According to Diana Eck “It is clear in the New Testament that the Spirit is a gift, not a reward.  The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, often depicted as a dove with wings outspread diving downward toward him, comes before his initiatory period of testing in the wilderness, not after it.  In most initiation sequences, one would expect the order to be reversed; after testing and trial, one is confirmed with a new cloak of blessing.  But the empowerment of the Spirit is not earned, it is freely given.  And so with the early church at Pentecost, it was not their courage or clarity that evoked the blessing of the Spirit, for they were vulnerable and confused.  The Spirit is a gift, not a possession.  The Spirit inspires and gives breath of life to the church, but the church does not encompass, contain, or own the Holy Spirit. . . it is the Holy Spirit that drives us beyond the comforts and certainties of what we know.” 1

So what does it take to be a Pentecost church in urban Los Angeles in 2014?

Re-mything our Traditions

I did some homework on this and this is what I found:  First, a Pentecost church today has a social media presence.  I perused 10 very diverse church websites, I read several articles on church growth, I also went back and read the report we got when we participated in the New Beginnings study here at St. Paul’s and I concluded that a presence in cyber space was decidedly number one.  Now the articles acknowledged the overabundance and over-reliance on social media of our younger generations: Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community. Indeed!

But there was also consensus that social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread our message. If we were to talk to our Generation X and Millennial young folks, they would probably tell us that the days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.

How many of you have checked out St. Paul’s website?  Has it been helpful to you?  Have you read any of my sermons which are posted on it?  Have you looked at the pictures?  Have you “friended” us on Facebook?  Have you asked your friends and family members who live in faraway places to “friend” us?  One picture or message posted on a Facebook page with 100 people ”liking” it has the potential to reach 1000’s of people.

The second manifestation of receiving the Spirit according to my research is getting out into our community.  Our Evangelism and Social Justice Ministry Team has been working on this, but there is plenty for all of us to do with this.                                                                   Without a doubt St. Paul’s is one of the warmest congregations in the world when people step inside our doors. But for the vast majority of our community, we are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and those of us who did not grow up in the church.

So instead of waiting for others to come to us, we have to figure out how to go to them. How do we get involved in the Baldwin Hills or Baldwin Village communities? We could host events like concerts and lectures. We could invest in ministries of hospitality and make our building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. We could host AA meetings. We could make sure that every homeowners group and every Neighborhood Watch knows that our Fellowship Hall is available for their regular access. I know that historically we have hosted scout troops and tutoring programs. This is more than just being a landlord. The Pentecost Spirit is telling us to be a gracious host. Sharing our building through ministries of hospitality can indeed be a service we provide to the community.

But more importantly, we have to go outside of our doors. We need to be involved in community celebrations and let folks know who we are and where we attend church. We could serve lemonade and cookies over there at the bus stop on the corner of La Brea and Coliseum. I’m guessing that some of us have children or grandchildren who play on a soccer or Little League team we could be supporting and sponsoring! I am sure that there are more than ample opportunities to volunteer at Audubon Middle School (although I’m sure it involves being fingerprinted!). When we visit Bob Engleton at his assisted living facility do we also offer words of encouragement to other patients and their families or the staff of that community? Have we been in touch with his daughters to see if there is any kind of support they may need? We have a wonderful network of black Presbyterian churches to work with, but maybe there are other churches in the community that we could be coalescing with. Whatever it is, we have to find out what matters in our community and then figure out a way to contribute. We can’t serve a community that we don’t know and love. St. Paul’s has been on this corner since 1949 so we have a vested interest in the life of this community.                     Now, the third item on my list of attributes for a Pentecost church is a reminder that some of the people we hope to attract to St. Paul’s did not grow up in the church so when we recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology at a particular point in the service every Sunday, there may well be those in our midst who have not a clue as to what this is all about. How does a visitor know when to stand or when to sit during the service?  And now we have two hymnals, as if finding our way through one wasn’t challenge enough. Is it always understood when we serve communion that all are welcome, and is it clear that we are using grape juice and wine (an important consideration for many)? Are you sitting next to a visitor?  Is there some helpful information or guidance you could afford them?

I took our fourth aspect of being a Pentecost church from the blog of Rev. Emily C. Heath who is a United Church of Christ pastor. 2 This involves our openness to being transformed. I am going to share a secret with you this morning: bringing new people into the church is going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconsciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.

When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And St. Paul’s will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.

We like to think of St. Paul’s as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though we may have been here thirty years and they have been here one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.

There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It is wonderful to know our history; in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t always done it “this way”, but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, just like Georgia and Ashley speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.

So when young families arrive with their kids, we must let them teach us about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday school models might not work anymore and our Parish Education Ministry Team is taking that on. When young adults come, we need to be open to letting them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather than for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask if this is how God is leading us into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.

Toward the goal of establishing not only these four hallmarks but other marks of a Pentecost church as well, I am proposing for us a new mantra: It is “yes, if. . . not no because.” This is a great recalibration of our mindset from the negative to the affirmative.  It is no longer “We’ve tried this”, or “That won’t work here because”, and, my personal favorite, “We’re different”.  “Yes, we can reach that intended goal if…” now becomes the substitute for “No, we cannot do that here because…”.   “Yes, we can plan an exciting future for St. Paul’s if…” now becomes the substitute for “No, we cannot do that here because…”.  This is like learning a new language, it is about attitudinal adjustment, it is transformational thinking.   It is a great way to put our fears into a new light.  So “Yes, if. . . not no because!”  3

I close with a remarkable quote from Brennan Manning “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to and then receive openly the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.” 4  Amen.

Prayer

Great God, may this day be a new Pentecost — a day in which you will pour out your Spirit and put a new heart within us; a day in which our faltering spirits will be revived, and our enthusiasm will be renewed; a day in which you will equip us for service, and send us out to change your world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

 

  1. 1.        (Encountering God:  A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, p. 134)
  2. 2.       (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/how-to-be-a-pentecost-chu_b_5462067.html)
  3. 3.       http://www.leanhealthcareexchange.com/?p=782
  4. 4.        Brennan Manning 1934-2013 at http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/pentecostabc.html